Expectations are high for the New York Rangers this season.
Having finished 2011-12 atop the Eastern Conference, only to fall to the New Jersey Devils in the conference final, many observers anticipated the Rangers would add another star player via trade or free agency.
On July 23, GM Glen Sather shipped centers Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov as part of a package deal to the Columbus Blue Jackets for star winger Rick Nash.
That move not only addressed the need for a short-term replacement for injured right winger Marian Gaborik (sidelined until early December to off-season shoulder surgery), but also provides significant offensive punch when Gaborik returns.
Of course, if the NHL lockout doesn’t end until December, the Rangers will have a healthy Gaborik potentially on the same line as Nash (who can play left wing) and center Brad Richards to open the season.
The Nash acquisition is just one reason the Rangers are considered a Stanley Cup contender.
The Blueshirts have a promising cast of forwards such as third-year center Derek Stepan, sophomore left winger Carl Hagelin, and rookie left winger Chris Kreider (who was impressive in last season’s playoffs). Right winger and captain Ryan Callahan is among the league’s best two-way forwards.
New York’s checking lines possess a good mix of size (centers Brian Boyle and Mike Rupp, left winger Taylor Pyatt) and experience (center Jeff Halpern, right winger Arron Asham).
Defensemen Dan Girardi (28), Marc Staal (25), Ryan McDonagh (23) and Michael Del Zotto (22) give the Rangers surely the best young blueline in the NHL.
In goal, they’ve got Henrik Lundqvist, the 2012 Vezina Trophy winner, who gives them a chance to win every game.
Fiery coach John Tortorella preaches a self-sacrificing defense style, which saw the Rangers rank among the league leaders last season in blocked shots.
Still, there are a couple areas which bear watching.
One is their power play, among the league’s worst at 23rd overall last season. The addition of Nash will help in that regard, but it remains to be seen how well their second power-play unit performs.
Second-line scoring will be a concern if Stepan, Hagelin and Kreider struggle to meet expectations. Assuming Nash, Richards and Gaborik mesh on the first line, only Callahan can be considered their most reliable second-line forward.
That explains why the Rangers pursued UFA right winger Shane Doan prior to his re-signing with the Phoenix Coyotes.
New York also needs Del Zotto, who led all Rangers blueliners last season in points with 41, to continue his development as a puck-moving defenseman, especially with the man-advantage. His defensive mistakes drive Tortorella nuts at times, but Del Zotto’s their only pure offensive d-man. Without him, their power play wilts.
If his performance slumps, and no other Blueshirts defenseman fills his role, Sather will be forced into the trade market for a hard-shooting blueliner.
That’s assuming, of course, Del Zotto is still playing for the Rangers. Prior to the expiration of the last CBA, he was embroiled in a contract dispute with management. Sather reportedly offered a multi-year deal worth between $2.2-$2.5 million per season, though Del Zotto’s agent, Mark Guy, recently disputed those numbers.
In September, Sather told the media he’d tabled his best offer, confident the defenseman would “come to his senses.”
Given what little leverage Del Zotto has, it’s difficult to believe he’d stage a holdout. If he were to go that route, Sather’s patience would be tested, perhaps forcing a move to replace him.
It’s unlikely Sather makes any hasty early moves once his Rangers finally return to action, as he’ll want to allow sufficient time to evaluate his roster
Given how close the Rangers came to advancing to the 2012 final, however, the pressure will be on Sather to ensure his club has what it needs to take that next step.
Rumor Roundup appears Monday-Friday only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News, Kukla’s Korner and The Guardian, Charlottetown.